Finding your ‘Community of the Heart’

If ever there was a book written for life under the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, surely The Shape of Living is it! Back in the nineties, David Ford (Irish Christian and Cambridge academic) wrote it as a “book about coping with multiple overwhelmings”.(p. 18)

In this blog I will focus on what he says about the “community of the heart” from a chapter entitled ‘Faces and Voices: Shaping a Heart’. I think it will particularly resonate with what many of us may be experiencing just now. (You can find the Table of Contents and selected extracts from other chapters here on Googlebooks.)

Being physically distanced from family, friends and acquaintances, Val and I have found ourselves to be in many ways actually closer to them. The phone calls, emails, Facebook messages, WhatsApp video calls and shouted conversations through a door or window have all come to mean so much more to us. I have even found myself sending Facebook Friend Requests to people with whom I’ve had little or no contact for years, even decades. One was a student who was a member of my tutor group when I was first a full-time teacher back in the seventies! (He accepted the request immediately!) His name had popped up in a list of ‘People You May Know’ and I was transported back into the classroom in the tower-block by the games field to be again with him and a great group of young teenagers.

David Ford writes:

“’Heart’ is a way of talking about that dimension of our self where memory, feeling, imagination, and thinking come together. The heart is like a home for all the concerns of our lives, where our identity is sorted out year after year. Above all it is inhabited by images of other people and of ourselves in relation to them. Our hearts are filled with the faces and voices of those before whom we live. These are the members of our ‘community of the heart’. (p. 33)

Is it not some of these people in the community of our heart that we find ourselves remembering and contacting in these physically distanced days? Others may have died long ago but they may nevertheless still be “so much a part of our identity that they are woven into the texture of our feeling and thinking” (p. 34).

Some years ago, England’s Teacher Training Agency had as its recruitment slogan: “Nobody forgets a good teacher”. Is there a teacher or teachers in the community of your heart? Miss Thomson (my primary school teacher) and Roddy Bent (a secondary school teacher of English) are certainly prominent figures in mine.

David Ford quotes from ‘Foster-Figure’, a poem about a teacher.[1] The poem is by Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail, a contemporary of Ford’s when they were students at Trinity College Dublin, O’Siadhail writes of the affirmation he found and even now finds in that teacher’s glance, how he “craved the nurture of his words” and “strings until then silent … stirred, trembling towards song”.

The poem continues:

“I probe the essence of this energy;
no blandishments or blind approval,
his unblinking trust enticed me,
fingered some awareness of worth;
in his praise all is possible.”

Years later, even decades later, the teacher is still there:

“Though at first a copy-cat tremor,
after many storms I’ll still
strum the chords of his assurance,
that music I’ll make my own,
my old resonance I’ll summon up.”

In the praise of Miss Thomson and Roddy Bent, for me all was indeed possible. Of course, it is also the case that nobody forgets a bad teacher. I had one who shall remain nameless, a teacher of Irish Gaelic, who once said to me, “You speak Irish like an Englishman”. It wasn’t a compliment!

David Ford goes on to point out that there are also discouragers in the community of our heart. He quotes from ‘Fallen Angel’, another of O’Siadhail’s poems.[2] This one is about some new teachers who came to the school after staff changes and who were anything but encouragers:

“New brooms with fresh sweeps.
How easily we become how we’re seen;
failure throws an oblong shadow,
I cover hurts with jaunty humour.

pretend not to care, affect disdain,
harden the core to day-by-day
humiliations tiny erosions of respect –
learn the slow rustlings of shame.

And laugh a bitter laugh! …

How many faces must a wound wear?” (The Shape of Living,pp. 34-35)

These people have shaped and are shaping our lives. Their faces and voices are with us. Let’s treasure the good memories, the memories of the good people. Let’s put relationships with people above the false and fading values. Let’s seek the affirmation of the greatest Teacher of all as we go forward together into the unknowns of these days.

Father God, in these days of multiple overwhelmings, bring us into closer relationships with others and with you and help us to be encouragers and channels of your peace, your shalom. In the name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.


[1] Poems 1975 – 1995: Hail! Madam Jazz, pp.90-91.

[2] Poems 1975 – 1995: Hail! Madam Jazz, pp.92-93.

Knowing of the Third Kind

A heart-warming story behind this picture will follow shortly but first I have a simple task for you. Take a few moments to think of a sentence that begins, “I know …”.  Got one? Good!

The sentence you have thought of will probably fall into one or other of three main categories, three kinds of knowing.

The first kind of knowing is knowing-that. I know that the square of nine is eighty one … Helsinki is the capital of Finland … Nelson Mandela was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1993 … water usually freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. This kind of knowing is factual knowledge.

The second kind of knowing is knowing-how. I know how to swim … ride a bicycle … change gear in a manual transmission car … make a sponge cake. (Oops, if the last of these is a claim I’m making for myself personally, it is very questionable!) This kind of knowing is skilful knowledge. It is acquired by doing, not simply by reading about it. I can be skilful at driving a car without knowing what is happening in the transmission when I depress the clutch to change gear.

Knowing-how is different from knowing-that. In an age when factual knowledge is available in an instant at the click of a mouse, skilful knowledge is becoming more important. That is not to say that factual knowledge is not important. Far from it, especially at the present time. Talk of ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ had become common in recent years but the advance of the coronavirus has meant we have again become desperate to know the facts and we are becoming tired of spin.

The third kind of knowing is knowing a person, place or thing, knowing with a direct object. I know my grandsons, … the town where I have lived for several decades … the dolmen on the Irish farm where I grew up. This is relational knowing, knowledge by acquaintance.

The importance of this kind of knowing has surely been brought home to us in these days of physical/spatial distancing. ‘Social distancing’ is a misnomer as the photo illustrating this piece shows so vividly. The photo is from a heart-warming newspaper article by Canadian Guardian journalist Daniel Brown[1] about a nurse and her grandmother, both of whom live on Cape Breton Island off the Atlantic coast.

Julienne Van Hul, 91, is in self-isolation at her home because of the coronavirus pandemic. As her grandmother has no internet, Stephanie McQuaid “had the idea of giving her a spare iPhone so she could use its FaceTime app to make video calls. … She bought a SIM card and phone plan … and then configured the phone to be senior-friendly and added some family members into its contact list. She cleaned the phone using lysol wipes and put it in a ziploc bag, then drove out to her grandmother’s home and left the phone package on her porch. Her grandmother retrieved it – making sure to wash her hands first. Then came the challenge of teaching Van Hul how to use the device through the patio window. McQuaid sat outside and used her own iPhone to help demonstrate, focusing exclusively on how to use FaceTime.”

Van Hul is now receiving FaceTime calls from various relatives. She has been “able to see one of her grandchildren who lives in Calgary, and she could share her thoughts on another grandchild’s new haircut”.

The three kinds of knowing are related. Some ‘knowing that’ is necessary for relational knowing for it would be strange to claim to know a person and not be able to state some facts about her or him even though the facts that we state may not be exactly the same as those stated by somebody else who also knows that person. At the same time, it is possible to make an in-depth study of facts about a person and still not be justified in claiming to know that person.

In a similar way, some interpersonal skills may also be necessary for relational knowing but they cannot be sufficient for it because we may know to some extent how to relate appropriately to a person without actually knowing that person.

Relational knowing cannot be reduced to either ‘knowing that’ or ‘knowing how’ or even to a combination of the two. Something more is required by way of a direct acquaintance with or immediate awareness of the person, place or thing that is known.

These distinctions among kinds of knowing are reflected in many languages. In French, for example, relational knowing is connaître while savoir is used for both ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’. German distinguishes usages even further for it has different words for all three kinds of knowing—wissen (know that), kőnnen (know how) and kennen (know a person or place).

The Scottish and Northern English word ‘ken’ has its origin in kennen as in the folk-song ‘D’ye ken John Peel’ although it’s meaning is not limited to relational knowing. We talk of things being ‘beyond our ken’.

Irish Gaelic has the same word for ‘knowing that’ and ‘knowing how’ and a different word for ‘knowing a person, place or thing. ‘Tá a fhios agam gurb é Baile Átha Cliath príomhchathair na hÉireann’ (I know that Dublin is the capital of Ireland). ‘Tá a fhios agam conas snámh a dhéanamh’ (I know how to swim). ‘Tá aithne agam ar Bhaile Átha Cliath’ (I know Dublin)

The word used almost always in the Old Testament for knowing of any kind is yada’. This is the word used when intimate sexual relations are written about in terms of ‘knowing’ a man or a woman. The same word is used for knowledge of God. Knowing God is not merely an awareness of his existence but a recognition of who he is and of his demands upon the obedience of those who know him.

Part III of Handel’s oratorio The Messiah opens with words from the Old Testament book of Job – “I know that my Redeemer liveth”. It takes the form of a statement of knowing-that but it is also and perhaps centrally a statement of relational knowing.

Father God, help us to grow in relational knowing, being connected with one another and with the physical creation of places and things and, above all, in connection with you. In the name of Jesus who came into this world of people, places and things to reconnect us. Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook


[1] My grateful thanks to Daniel for giving me permission to use his photo.

Other Birds Our Teachers? Over to You!

My plan has been to post at most one blog per week but responses to yesterday’s piece have made me think I should follow it up today with something for you to think about and possibly to respond with.

Some have written with memories of John Stott or anecdotes about him and his enjoyment of bird-watching. They led me to recall how, as an eighteen- or nineteen-year-old, I had sneaked into a meeting organised by the Christian Union in Trinity College Dublin to hear him speaking. (I wasn’t a student and probably shouldn’t have been there.) I still remember the hush in that hall as he spoke of the absolute holiness of God and our own sinfulness.

Two friends have written to suggest biblical themes with which the characteristic behaviour of other birds could be linked. This in response to my cheeky suggestion that a chapter on ‘The Flight Formation of the Wild Geese: Interdependence’ could be added to Stott’s lovely book.

Matt Kaegi wrote from Winterthur in Switzerland to talk about the playful behaviour of crows, those fun-loving birds that have been observed to do such amazing things. Their playfulness is linked with creativity in the making of tools. Just google ‘crows playfulness’ and you’ll find lots of articles about this. See, for example, Harvard Magazine’sCrows know how to have fun’ and the BBC website’s ‘Crows could be the smartest animal other than primates’.

Proverbs talks about the playfulness of wisdom at creation. “When he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was constantly at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in humankind. (Proverbs 8:29-31)

Translations use ‘rejoicing’ because it sounds more pious but, in his book Wise Teaching, Charles Melchert writes: “Yet everywhere else in the Hebrew Bible, this term is translated ‘play’ … children playing with toys and games … people playing musical instruments and dancing … even of the love-play between Isaac and Rebekah.” (p. 189) Others have translated ‘rejoicing’ as ‘frolicking’ and ‘jesting’.

Christ who is Wisdom is therefore the Lord of the Dance! And our playfulness is linked with imagination and creativity!

David Smith wrote from Grand Rapids in Michigan to say he had recently read an Audobon.org article entitled ‘In homing pigeon flocks, bad bosses quickly get demoted’ and suggested this behaviour could be linked with the biblical theme of humility. The article reports research that showed how flocks of homing pigeons keep leaders with bad information from throwing them off course.

How often do leaders of human organisations, churches, schools lack the humility to step down or be redirected by others when they get it wrong?  All too often, I think.

Now it is over to you! Do you know of another bird whose characteristic behaviour can be linked with a biblical theme? If so, please share it.  More about how to do so in a moment but first let’s see what we have so far. Here is the list of chapter titles in John Stott’s book:

  1. The Feeding of Ravens: Faith
  2. The Migration of Storks: Repentance
  3. The Head of Owls: Facing Both Ways
  4. The Value of Sparrows: Self-esteem
  5. The Drinking of Pigeons: Gratitude
  6. The Metabolism of Hummingbirds: Work
  7. The Soaring of Eagles: Freedom
  8. The Territory of Robins: Space
  9. The Wings of a Hen: Shelter
  10. The Song of Larks: Joy
  11. The Breeding Cycle of All Birds: Love

To these we can add:

  1. The Flight Formation of Wild Geese: Interdependence
  2. The Playfulness of Crows: Creativity
  3. The Leadership of Homing Pigeons: Humility

So over to you! Please share any suggestions you have for chapter titles to add to the list. Alternatively, you may have memories or anecdotes about John Stott to share.

I suggest you do so by writing a comment on my Facebook link to this blog and you can find it by clicking here.

Alternatively, you can email me (address under ‘Contact Me’ on my website) and, with your permission, I can add what you share to the comments on my Facebook link.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Creator and Wise God, help us to learn from what you have made how to live in peace with ourselves and others, the physical world and, above all, with you. Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

‘The Birds our Teachers’ by John Stott

I guess many readers of this blog will have read one or more of the many books that the famous Bible teacher John Stott wrote during his long and influential life but have you read ‘The Birds our Teachers’?

In this unique book, John Stott introduces us to what he humorously terms ‘the science of orni-theology’ and he does so in eleven short chapters lavishly illustrated with more than 150 lovely photographs taken during his travels around the world.

Stott traces his lifelong love of bird-watching back to walks with his father in the country as a boy of only five or six years. On these walks, his father would tell him to shut his mouth and open his eyes and ears (p. 7). He finds “the highest possible authority” for his hobby in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus tells us to “look at the birds of the air” (Matthew 6:26). He says that, in basic English, Jesus is telling us to “watch birds” and he points out that the Greek verb used means “to fix the eyes on or take a good look at” (p. 9).

The book combines the author’s personal stories with information about birds and with biblical themes in a way that should be of interest to both birders and Bible students alike. Each chapter focuses on a different bird (albeit not exclusively because many other birds are mentioned in each as well) and on a different spiritual lesson. It is therefore not a book to be read straight through from cover to cover but rather more of a coffee-table book to dip into and reflect upon, one chapter at a time.

My favourite chapter is one near the end of the book entitled ‘The Song of Larks: Joy’. As I read it, I’m transported back to an unforgettable experience that Val and I had some years ago when we were on holiday in the Black Forest region in Germany. We went up the Feldberg in a cable car and, as we stepped out onto the snowy slopes, a lark was ascending in the clear air and singing its heart out just above us. It was a moment of sheer joy for both of us as we walked near the summit of the highest mountain in Germany outside of the Alps.

The chapter is focussed on the lark and opens with Shelley’s ode that hails the “blithe spirit”. He goes on to talk about the songs of other birds including “the liquid bubbling trill of the Curlew’s spring song” (and I’m a little boy again walking in the callows[1] on my father’s farm!), “the resonant, explosive outburst of the Wren” and “the melodious flute-like warbling of the male European Blackbird” (p. 77). Another songbird I love to hear is the robin and, being an incurable early-riser, I’m serenaded each morning by one in a cherry tree beside our house … but that very territorial bird is the focus of another chapter (my second favourite) in which Stott talks about space and our need to preserve a “combination of colony and territory” and to avoid the extremes of isolation and total loss of privacy (p. 66).

Missing from the list of birds mentioned by John Stott is the wild goose. If I were to cheekily add a chapter to the book, it would be entitled ‘The Flight Formation of the Wild Geese: Interdependence’. I would go on to talk about the V-formation in which they fly. (Actually, it is often more like a J-formation because one leg of the V is longer than the other but the lessons to be learned are still the same.)

The lead bird works the hardest by breaking into undisturbed air. Drag is reduced and uplift is produced for the following birds and they expend twenty to thirty per cent less energy flying. As the lead bird tires, it drops back in the formation and another bird takes its place. The birds constantly communicate with one another by honking. Honking from behind is effectively encouragement for those in front.

In a study of the phenomenon of the V, Steven Portugal of the Royal Veterinary College in Hatfield found that the birds were not only placing themselves in the best place but also flapping at the best time to reduce the energy expended by the flock. He said, “They are just so aware of where each other are and what the other bird is doing. And that’s what I find really impressive”.[2]

If one goose becomes injured and has to land, a few family members will stay with it until it recovers. When it is ready to fly again they all set off and look for a new flock to join.[3]

In these days of life under the shadow of the coronavirus, we can learn, and indeed are learning, how we need one another. We are not independent, we are interdependent! And ultimately, we are all dependent upon God, whether or not we acknowledge it.

In Celtic Christianity, the wild goose was seen as a symbol for the Holy Spirit. God is not to be tamed. A Spirit-led life can be like a wild goose chase!

“Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.” (Matthew 6:26, The Message)

Creator God, help us to sing for joy at the work of your hands and to support one another as we seek to journey to wherever you are leading us. Amen.


[1] Callows are a type of wetland found in Ireland. Most of the farm I grew up on was hilly but part was low-lying and flooded in winter.

[2] Nature, 16 Jan 2014, pp. 399-402.

[3] https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/natures-home-magazine/birds-and-wildlife-articles/migration/on-the-move/

Humility: Virtue not Vice

This piece is about the virtue of humility. There’s not a lot of it in our world today, is there?! Some of our world leaders exemplify anything but humility but it certainly doesn’t stop with them. Indeed, many regard it as a bad thing and the humble are dismissed with derision and scorn as ‘losers’.

It seems it was always so. Many in the honour-shame culture of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome certainly did not regard humility as a virtue. Indeed, philosophers such as Aristotle regarded it as a vice. It was dishonourable to be brought low and it was considered shameful to put oneself lower than one’s equals.

Onto the stage of history steps Jesus of Nazareth, the Servant-King – how counter-cultural in his time … and in ours! Paul writes in Philippians 2:3-5, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

This is immediately followed by Paul’s quotation of a hymn, presumably one known and sung in Philippi, which I’ve represented diagrammatically as follows:

Commentators point out that the shape of the story of Jesus contrasts line by line, step by step with the story of fallen humankind. I’ve constructed another diagram for this:[1]

Australian writer John Dickson comments on the Philippian hymn: “What we read in the above text is nothing less than a humility revolution. Honour and shame are turned on their heads. The highly honoured Jesus lowered himself to a shameful cross and, yet, in so doing became not an object of scorn but of praise and emulation. … Honour has been redefined, greatness recast. If the greatest man we have ever known chose to forgo his status for the good of others, reasoned the early Christians, greatness must consist in humble service. The shameful place is now a place of honour, the low point is the high point.” (Humilitas, p. 109)

As song-writer Graham Kendrick puts it, “So let us learn how to serve / And in our lives enthrone Him / Each other’s needs to prefer / For it is Christ we’re serving”.

Great God and Father, help us to be revolutionaries in a culture of winners and losers, and in humility to value others above ourselves. In the name of Jesus, the Servant-King. Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.


[1] You can read more about the contrasting shape of these stories in chapter 7 of a book that David Smith and I wrote some years ago (available as a free download here).

A New Orientation

This is a picture taken in winter of the mid-day sun over a lake. As you stand looking at this scene from the point at which the picture was taken, in what direction are you looking – north, east, south or west? Most readers of this blog will give the same answer but not all!

Back in May 2016, I had a work-trip to Australia and I made what was to me a surprising discovery. The sun shone from the northern sky!  I was standing by a street in central Sydney and a friend was directing me to the Opera House. He pointed down the street and said, “keep going south and you can’t miss it”. But the sun was shining from behind us and I thought, “That can’t be south … that must be north”. Of course, it was south because the sun (of which I was somehow aware without thinking about it) was shining down on us from the northern sky.

Again, a day or two later, one of my hosts had taken me to the rail station to catch a train into central Sydney and it happened again. She indicated the direction from which the train would shortly be coming and I thought, “Surely not, it will be coming from the west”. East and west were swapped around in my mind because, again, I was assuming that the sun was shining from the south … and it wasn’t!

After more than seventy years of life oriented to the sun being in the southern sky, I was being reoriented to having it shine from the north! East had become west and west east!

In the Introduction to his book What I Believe, Leo Tolstoy wrote this:

“Five years ago I came to believe in Christ’s teachings, and my life suddenly changed; I ceased to desire what I had previously desired, and began to desire what I formerly did not want. … It happened to me as it happens to a man who goes out on some business and suddenly decides that the business is unnecessary and returns home. All that was on his right is now on his left, and all that was on his left is now on his right; his former wish to get as far as possible from home has changed into a wish to be as near as possible to it. The direction of my life and my desires became different, and good and evil changed places.”

At the age of 55, Tolstoy wrote this about his conversion five years earlier. For most of his life he had been a Nihilist. He went on to say, “I, like that thief on the cross, have believed Christ’s teaching and been saved.”

I was seventeen, going on eighteen, back in February 1962. (You can do the maths!) I was sitting in a Sunday evening service in the YMCA in Dublin. It was a service to which young people came from all over the city and its suburbs. The meeting hall was quite large with a gallery at the back. I was sitting with two friends high in the gallery.

I had always believed in God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit. I had always believed that Jesus came as baby, lived, died on the cross and was raised again. I had always regarded the Bible as God’s book and read it regularly. I had always gone to church. I had always prayed to God. But, at that time, I was struggling with the realisation that, in spite of all that, all was not well in my heart and life, that there were things that I had done, said and thought that were not good. They were bad but I wanted to hold on to them.

That evening, sitting there in that service, while a church pastor from Liverpool was speaking, I surrendered to the Lord and trusted him as Saviour and Friend.

I was filled with joy as my friends and I walked the mile and a half or so to where we and other young men fresh up in Dublin from the country were living. I immediately wrote a letter home to my parents and younger brothers on the farm to tell them that Jesus was my Saviour.

I was changed and my life was changed. It wasn’t just a change of mind, a change of beliefs that I had. It was a new relationship.

How to describe the newness of this new relationship? I’ve come to think of it as being a reorientation, a reorientation of the whole person. Having this new friend, Jesus, come into one’s heart and life is a reorientation from having my world centred on me to having it centred on him. It is not that I’m consciously thinking of him all the time any more than I am consciously thinking of the sun as being in the southern sky but my living and my decisions and plans now take him into account. A husband is not consciously thinking of his wife every moment of the day but all his living and all his plans are made and decisions are taken within that relationship and oriented towards it.

Light of the world, help us to be always oriented to you as Son of God, to walk in your light and to reflect you in our living. Amen.

P.S. If you would like to be notified when new blogs are posted, please EITHER (1) email me through the contact address on this website OR (2) message me if you have come here via a link posted on Facebook.

Why, O Lord?

Come walk with me into Psalm 42.

Hurting, really hurting

The first thing we notice is that the writer is hurting, really hurting.

The psalm opens with the image of a deer: “As the deer pants for the water …” (v 1). This deer isn’t up to its elbows in a mountain stream – it is desperately searching for water in a dry place. The deer is suffering. Where can I find streams in this desert, rivers in these badlands?

As Eugene Peterson translates this psalm in The Message, the writer is “on a diet of tears – tears for breakfast, tears for supper” (v 3). He is “down in the dumps … crying the blues” (v 5). He says to God, “Your breaking surf, your thundering breakers crash and crush me” (v 7).

Some Christians would have us believe that our lives should be lived always on the mountaintop. I remember a chorus that I learned as a teenager that went: “I’m living on the mountain underneath a cloudless sky, / I’m drinking at the fountain that never shall run dry, …”. Is your sky cloudless today?  Thank God if it is.  It is like that some of the time.  For some of us, it is like that more of the time than for others … but please don’t kid yourself that it will always be so! And don’t let others make you think you are somehow a failure if it is not for you a matter of always walking on the mountaintop.

It wasn’t so for Job, it wasn’t so for David, it wasn’t so for Jeremiah, it wasn’t so for Paul, it wasn’t so for Jesus!  He wept, he was the “Man of Sorrows” who was “acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3)!

Questioning

The second thing we notice is that the writer is asking questions.

He is questioning deeply and even questioning God. Again and again he asks “Why?”

There are many today who ask us, ‘Where is your God?’ and if we find it hard to see him in our circumstances, we may begin ourselves to ask the same question, “Where is God?” How can this be happening to me?  How can this be happening to the person I love so much?  Why have you forgotten me, O Lord? Jesus, the Son of God, asked his Father that question as he hung on the cross!

Is it wrong to ask God questions? If we are asking humbly with a genuine desire to know, then I suggest that it is not wrong.  It is a matter of our motives, of the attitudes of our hearts. The writer says twice that his enemies are asking, ‘Where is your God?’ That doesn’t sound like a question that comes from a true desire to know or a humble heart that is open to learn.

As I read, watch or listen to the news, I find myself asking, “Why do bad things happen to good people? … Why do the wicked prosper?” The latter question was asked by Job (Job 21:7) and one translation puts it like this: “Why do the wicked have it so good?”

And yet, and yet

The third thing we notice is that, in all this hurting and questioning, there is an “and yet, and yet”!

Hear Eugene Peterson again: “soon I’ll be praising again … He puts a smile on my face, He’s my God” (v 5) and “God promises to love me all day, sing songs all through the night!” (v 8). Tears in the night but also songs in the night – what Leonard Cohen would call a “broken hallelujah”!

It is not that the hurt has gone or the questions been answered – they are still there but they are accompanied by a hope that says God is there in the darkness and that one day we will see him and praise him.

There is a verse in Hebrews that goes like this: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, who went before us, has entered on our behalf.” (Hebrews 6:19-20)

The storms of life may toss us about but we can have a hope that is in Jesus who has gone on before us into the presence of the Father. That hope is an anchor in the storm.  It is firm and secure and it holds us in spite of all that is washing over us, all those waves and breakers.

It is an assurance that God is there even when we are not living on the mountain, when we are deep in a dark valley.

A beautiful hymn by John Bell and Graham Maule of the Iona Community begins, “We cannot measure how you heal / or answer every sufferer’s prayer, / yet we believe your grace responds / where faith and doubt unite to care.” It goes on to talk of “The pain that will not go away, / the guilt that clings from things long past, / the fear of what the future holds”.

Let’s make the last four lines our prayer.

Lord, let your Spirit meet us here / to mend the body, mind and soul, / to disentangle peace from pain / and make your broken people whole.”

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‘Gilead’ by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, the winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was last year ranked second on The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of first two decades of the 21st century. It is a staggeringly wonderful piece of writing and I have to confess that, although I feel I must write this piece about it, I am deeply aware that I cannot do justice to the extraordinary quality of the work.

The story

Gilead is set in 1956 in a small fictional mid-western town of that name in Iowa and it takes the form of a long letter by a 76-year-old Congregationalist pastor named John Ames to his six- or seven-year-old son. His first wife had died in childbirth and their infant daughter had also died soon after. In his mid-sixties after many years of loneliness, he met and married his second wife, a young woman named Lila (the subject of a later novel by Marilynne Robinson) and she gave birth to their son.

John Ames has been told that he is facing imminent death because of a heart condition so he sets about writing this story of his life for his son to read long after he has died. His grandfather had been a pastor in Kansas and had fought in the Civil War in the cause of the abolition of slavery. His father, also pastor of the Gilead church, was a convinced pacifist and this had led to a rift with the grandfather. John’s brother had studied in Germany and had become an atheist and had fallen out with their father. John’s lifelong and close friend, the minister of the town’s Presbyterian church, always referred to by John as ‘Boughton’ or ‘old Boughton’, features prominently in the story. So also does his son, ‘young Boughton’, who had brought disgrace on the family and left the town. Later in the story, he comes back home. John Ames struggles to forgive him for what he had done.

What some reviewers have said

Gilead is much concerned with fathers and sons, and with God the father and his son. The book’s narrator returns again and again to the parable of the prodigal son — the son who returned to his father and was forgiven, but did not deserve forgiveness. … Robinson’s words have a spiritual force that’s very rare in contemporary fiction. … As the novel progresses, its language becomes sparer, lovelier, more deeply infused with Ames’s yearning metaphysics.” (Ali Smith, The Guardian, 16th April, 2005)

“Robinson’s prose is beautiful, shimmering and precise; the revelations are subtle but never muted when they come, and the careful telling carries the breath of suspense.” (Ellen Levine, PublishersWeekly.com)

“Robinson demonstrates the extraordinary in the ordinary. She shepherds us up to our own death and helps us face it with confidence. She validates our lives in places where we wonder if they have had any impact. … This book is an amazing unveiling of the truth of the Christian faith, barely hidden behind the curtain of human mortality. Robinson’s guided tour of the dusty, dry insignificant town of Gilead is a walk through the deepest of our human experience. She shows us how to celebrate life and God and appreciate every last thing about this life and the life to come.” (Fred D Mueller, Customer Review on Amazon website, 2nd April, 2017)

Some quotations from the book itself (you can find many more here)

“A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.” (p. 8)

“Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.” (p. 23)

“People talk about how wonderful the world seems to children, and that’s true enough. But children think they will grow into it and understand it, and I know very well that I will not, and would not if I had a dozen lives.” (p. 76)

“Love is holy because it is like grace–the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.” (p. 238)

“There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us.” (p. 280)

How and why has this book impacted me?

It’s opening sentences are: “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren’t very old, as if that settled it.”

John Ames closes his letter to his son with these words: “I’ll pray that you will grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray you find a way to be useful. I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.”

The pages in between were for me a journey into my own inner life and the world of my memories as well as that of my present relationships with the Lord and with family members and friends.

Later this year I will be as old as John Ames was when he wrote this letter to his son. I certainly have fewer years left of this life than I have lived so far. My father was my age (and almost the age of John Ames) when he passed away. Yes, between my father and me there was often not only loyalty and love but also what Marilynne Robinson terms “mutual incomprehension”.

Although I’ve never been a church pastor, I’ve preached many a sermon. Like John Ames, I’ve often wondered about their impact.

In 1956, the time of the setting of the story, I was just entering my teenage years, a country boy living with my parents and young brothers on the family farm in rural Ireland. Everybody knew everybody else and every grownup knew everybody else’s family histories and their scandals. It sounds like Gilead, doesn’t it?

I never knew either of my grandfathers but my mother’s father, like John Ames, was married late in life to a younger woman. He was a God-fearing member of the Christian Brethren of whom my mother talked warmly, albeit rarely. I don’t know if there was anybody that he found it hard to forgive but I’ve known family members who have found forgiveness a struggle.

I have sons and grandsons whom I love dearly and for each of whom I pray a bright future.

Need I say more?

God of all love and all grace, help us to live in your Big Story and to walk with you to the end of our days. Amen.

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What’s the Big Story? (Part Two)

Our life-stories are special to us. A T-shirt slogan puts it this way: “I am starring in my own soap opera!”. Some details we can’t remember. Some we remember fuzzily. Some we remember with clarity as if they had happened yesterday. Some we will never forget as long as we have our faculties. 

We locate ourselves in the stories of our lives, stories with a beginning at which we were present but cannot remember and an end which we know will surely come one day but we cannot usually anticipate when or how it will be. We are somewhere in between, we know not exactly where, and this has led some to talk of our human perspective as being both “middled” and “muddled”.[1]

Not only are there stories all about us, our own middled muddled stories and those of other people meeting, interacting, overlapping, and developing day by day, but we find that these our stories are parts of bigger stories, stories of communities and traditions, of people and races. Where does it stop?

We need a Big Story to make sense of all our little stories. Without a Big Story, we are left looking out into nothingness. We are like those in folk-singer Joan Baez’s ‘The Hitchhikers’ Song‘ of whom she says that they are “the orphans in an age of no tomorrows”.

There are many Big Stories that directly and indirectly shape the way we think and live. There is, for example, the Big Story of human beings all on their own in a chance universe, working their way up from nothingness, ever making progress in their understanding, needing no power beyond themselves. Life is getting better all the time as we learn more and can do more.

But is this story true? Yes, we know and understand many things that our ancestors didn’t. Our mobile technology gives us instant communication across thousands of miles even when we are out walking on a mountain slope. Our medical techniques save us from illnesses of which people lived in fear even a few decades ago. A few clicks on the computer keyboard give us access to masses of information formerly stored on many miles of library shelving. But is life really getting better in all respects? Are we human beings on our own making progress towards perfect harmony in our relationships, mastering our selfish impulses, or finding a way of coping with the inner despairs and dreads that haunt us in the dark hours? I suggest not.

But that’s a story in which many people live and move and have their being, the story of the “Ascent of Man,” the story of optimistic Humanism. (A very deformed mutation of it can be found, I fear, increasingly in the western world, in the Big Story of white supremacy.)

What great story is adequate to provide a true and meaning-giving context to the stories of our lives? I believe it has to be the Big True Story of God, the Christian meta-narrative. This is a story that is bigger than all of us.

The Bible comes to us not in the form of a textbook of theology but as a narrative, as the Big True (and amazing) Story of God and his world. The form is primarily that of a story and, even where it isn’t, the context of its poems and letters is still that Big Story of God and the world he has made, the world of people like you and me. Even our statements of belief in our creeds are retellings of this story, of movements of characters and events in space and time.

There are lots of stories in the Bible but they are all set in the context of a Big Story that begins with God himself. He made everything. He made us. But we disobeyed him and we chose to go our own ways. As a result, we were sent out of his beautiful Garden, no longer able to walk and talk with him as his children.

The focal point of this story is the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Cross is the hinge of history and the body of Jesus was broken on that hinge. But we come through to the other side—to life that shall never end! Death is not the end because death itself is defeated by the one who came back from death and will never die.

Jesus will return and make everything new. There will be “the promised new heavens and the promised new earth, all landscaped with righteousness.” (2 Pet 3:13, The Message).

This is therefore not only a story of what happened in the past. It tells of what will happen in the future. The best is yet to come! But it is also a story of what is happening now! The kingdom of God is here already, it is within us if we are open to him. It is both now and not yet.

Heavenly Father, help us to live, move and have our being in your Big Story. Help us to be better story tellers and to tell your Big Story, that best story of all, in all we do and say. Amen.

(This blog is adapted from part of a chapter in Bible-Shaped Teaching, a book I wrote a few years ago. The whole chapter and other selected contents can be found online in Google Books here.)


[1] The first to do so seems to have been David L Jeffrey in his People of the Book (p. 143).

What’s the Big Story? (Part One)

It was about fifteen years ago. My little three-year-old grandson climbed on my knee with one of his favourite storybooks. I read a bit and then, from his memory of the many times we had done this before, he told the next bit . . . and on we went together, telling the story in turns to each other. However, this time was to be different for, when we got to the last page, one of us (I can’t remember which) turned over to the blank page at the end and the blank inside cover of the book and we continued the story together, telling each other what might have happened next. As we went forward together in our imaginings, the pictures in the inward eye were much more vivid than those on the earlier printed pages.

We all enjoy stories. As children we love them but, as adults too, are we not also easily caught up in stories we read, hear or view on screen? Those novels for bedtime or vacation reading, the detective mystery unfolding on TV, the blog of that friend’s travels, the heart-to-heart sharing of a life’s ups and downs by a complete stranger sitting beside us on a long bus journey. They have different settings, different plot-lines, different characters and themes, different lengths. We listen to them, we read them, we view them in plays and films, we hear them in song, we make them up, we tell them. They make us laugh, cry, reflect, imagine, lose ourselves—as my grandson and I did in that tale that we read together.

Stories are central to the way in which we structure our understanding of ourselves and others, of actions and events. They are part of our language and thought, of our whole experience of the world and our way of living.

We don’t just enjoy them as diversions, we think in stories. And we dream in stories, however chaotic these tales of the night may be at times. Whether waking or sleeping, we place characters and events in patterns in space and time. We locate ourselves and one another and the things that happen to us and around us in narrative contexts.

We are story-makers! Whether listening on the train to half a conversation that somebody is having on his cell phone, or reading the inscriptions on gravestones, or anticipating the next episode of a serial story on the radio, we cannot help filling in the details.

There is a fundamental incompleteness to all the stories that we tell, just as my grandson and I experienced when we came to the blank pages at the end of the book and found that we just had to continue the story.

This is true of our own personal stories, the stories of our lives. They need the context of bigger stories to make sense of them. Otherwise we are left looking out into nothingness.

Part Two next week!

Heavenly Father, help us to live, move and have our being in your Big Story. Amen.

(This blog is adapted from part of a chapter in a book I wrote a few years ago.)